How can you feel like a traveller in your own city? We try a series of conceptual art walks in New York and London ...
From THE ECONOMIST online
Visiting a city can feel like an adventure. Tourists often enjoy a heightened awareness of sights and smells, sounds and people. But for residents, much of this becomes routine—dulled by time, muted by circumstance. We are often blind to what we see everyday.
This, at least, is the guiding principle of Elastic City, a new company that offers a series of conceptual walks in Manhattan, Brooklyn and occasionally London. Founded by Todd Shalom, a Brooklyn-based poet and “sound artist”, these walks encourage participants to consider the city in a different way—by listening to the noises it makes, exploring the materials it’s made from and discovering its unexpected pockets of beauty. The aim is to feel like a traveller. Or, Mr Shalom explains, to “take poetry off the page”.
What this means in practice has varied from walk to walk over the course of Elastic City’s inaugural season, which began in May and concludes on October 17th. For a walk called “Brighton Zaum”, Mr Shalom led a group on an acoustic tour of a remote, Russian neighbourhood. City residents are often besieged by noise, he explained, yet the sounds we make or perceive are often subject to choice. He asked participants to walk silently and listen intently, to notice the sounds of the city as its own poetry. The quiet was an unexpected reprieve, coaxing into high relief the sigh of buses, the ripple-rattle of plastic bags and the occasional squeal of a train. The smell of smoked fish wafted importantly (listening closely intensified other senses). The walk ended with writing a poem in the sand of Brighton Beach as the sun set. The doggerel itself was silly, but the earned intimacy of the group felt startlingly sincere.
Mr Shalom has recruited experts and artists in other fields to create their own walks. For an excursion called “Homesickness”, for example, an Israel-born urban designer and “environmental psychologist” led a small group through Chinatown and the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The idea was to consider notions of displacement in an area associated with generations of immigrants. The tour began in Columbus Park on a Sunday, when amateur Chinese opera singers perform in the open air. One participant from Malaysia shared that this is where he comes to treat his own pangs of homesickness. “These songs are all about suffering. Like my aunts boasting about their suffering over tea,” he observed. Others on the tour never knew the park existed.
Mr Shalom describes these walks as “performative”, yet suggests they are a genre unto themselves. He has a point. These experiences are rare for being educational, interactive and personal. The artists often encourage moments of introspection and even vulnerability among participants, who may be asked to walk with eyes closed, make the sound of an inanimate object or trace the wall of a building with one’s hands. That such behaviour sounds regressive may be part of its appeal. With the right motivation, it can be satisfying to flout conventional codes of behaviour out in the open.
Together with Juan Betancurth, a Colombian-born artist, Mr Shalom is putting the final touches on “Lucky Walk”, the last tour of the season, which will debut on October 9th as part of New York’s Art in Odd Places festival. The walk, which considers the power of rituals and superstitions, includes moments of walking backwards, making wishes and buying lottery tickets. Participants meet at the Manhattan intersection of 13th Street and 7th Avenue, naturally.
The concept of luck—and specifically good luck—seems apt for Mr Shalom, whose Elastic City has enjoyed enough success for him to be making plans for the next season.
For more information about Elastic City and tickets to the "Lucky Walk", visit the company's website